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College students, judge debate impact of 'Jena Six' protests

POSTED: February 4, 2008 5:02 a.m.
TOM REED /The Times

Alex Ramirez makes a point at a Gainesville State College panel discussion titled "The Color Line Revisited: Does Racism Still Exist?" Also on the panel in the background are, from left, Hannah Riddle, Chris Baker and Corey Leonard. The four Gainesville State College students talked about their experience at the march for the "Jena Six" in Louisiana.

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Gainesville State College students discussed the parameters of a 2006 racially charged incident in Jena, La., inviting municipal court Judge Hammond Law to participate Wednesday.

Four students who attended the "Jena Six March for Justice" in late September shared their experiences of the nonviolent protest in which nearly 20,000 people descended upon the small town of Jena, La., protesting charges of attempted murder and conspiracy that six black teens faced after being accused of beating a white classmate, Justin Barker, 17.

Barker was knocked unconscious by Mychal Bell, and some reports say other students kicked and stomped Barker after he fell to the ground. The attack followed a series of racially charged incidents, including three white students hanging nooses from a tree at Jena High School.

After the beating, six students were charged with attempted murder and conspiracy to commit second-degree murder, but Bell is the only one who has been tried. No one was charged in the hanging of the nooses.

Bell was convicted of the charges, but they were later overturned by an appeals court in Louisiana. Bell pleaded guilty to second-degree battery when he was retried as a juvenile.

Bell, and the other members of the "Jena Six," became symbols for those who say the justice system treats blacks differently than whites.

Law, who attended the discussion as a community panelist, discussed the legal ramifications of the Louisiana incident. Law said it was a legitimate question to ask if 16-year-old Bell should have been charged as an adult.

"One of the biggest problems appears to be the severity of the initial charges," Law said.

But Law asked the student panelists what they had hoped to accomplish by protesting the charges.

"Specifically, in this case, I don’t think demonstrations can affect directly the disposition of the Jena Six defendants," Law said.

Law admittedly hedged giving his opinions on the "Jena Six," but he said the justice system had no choice but to prosecute since Barker was treated for "significant injuries".

"Even if you assume this is a racist situation ... Mr. Barker, from all accounts that I’ve ever read, he was injured by a group of young men," Law said. "So does the legal system just turn a blind eye to what happened to him, just because the series of events that led up to that?"

Chris Baker, one of the Gainesville students who attended the march, said that those who participated in the march in Jena made a difference for the "Jena Six," the United States and within themselves.

‘With one person, lives can be changed," Baker said. "With people, a nation can be saved."

Alejandro Ramirez, a Gainesville student who attended the protest as a reporter for the student newspaper, said that people should learn that the Jena incident is an issue that transcends race.

"It’s about how we treat each other as human beings," Ramirez said. "Let’s treat each other better."

Law said public officials could use the Jena incidents to make better decisions in the future.

"You’re probably never going to clearly untangle what happened in the past, but it can guide your actions in the future to make sure that you convince the public that everybody’s been treated equally," Law said.

Theresa Waters, a Gainesville State professor who moderated the event, said that she was proud that students from Gainesville had participated in the protest.

"It was under Dr. Martin Luther King’s leadership that people of all races, various religions came together to protest in the ’60s the injustices in our society through peaceful mass marches," Waters said.

The panel discussion was a part of the school’s celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr.


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